In a bombshell announcement scheduled for 9 a.m. EST Friday, with simulcasts in other parts of the world, Bill Keller, the executive editor of the New York Times, is prepared to admit a major misrepresentation. Over the past eleven years, Ralph Nader has masqueraded under an invented name and character — the bearded and supposedly well-credentialed Princeton economist “Paul Krugman” — in penning more than 500 columns for the New York Times.
Inside sources at the Times say that the ruse was concocted in 1999. Coming up then on his 96th birthday, Nader felt that he (like “The Gray Lady” herself) had become a victim of ageism. Having lost in yet another presidential bid three years earlier, and finding dwindling audiences on college campuses for his old-style “consumer advocacy,” Nader convinced Times editors that he was fully capable of serving as the newspaper’s lead economic columnist. “You give me the ‘dismal science,'” he told the editors, “and I will give you a magic lantern that will shine an unflattering light on all your critics and allow you to summon me whenever you want as the all-seeing genie who is prepared to both justify and satisfy your every wish. All I want is my own column and a new identity that will cause people to pay attention to me once again.”
Thus a Faustian bargain was struck: Nader got his column and the New York Times invented “Paul Krugman” as a younger persona to provide the aging agitator with a fresh platform for espousing his views on everything from the evils of big business and the perils of global warming to the ever-present danger that the Democratic Party was not pulling hard enough to the left.
The rail-thin Nader, who attributes his longevity to a strict vegetarian diet and a strong aversion to all dairy products, had to grow a beard and bulk up for his photo shoot as “Paul Krugman.” He super-sized himself through a four-month-long eating binge at McDonalds and other popular eateries. Even with the beard, Nader mostly avoided Starbucks, with its rich pastries and double-chocolate mochas, out of a concern that the clientele contained far too many clever college kids who might be able to recognize him from the descriptions provided by their parents and grandparents in games of Trivial Pursuit.
Times insiders say that Nader was both amazed and repelled at the result of a steady diet of cheeseburgers, French fries and milkshakes. It caused the hollow cheeks to puff up, the deep-set eyes to come popping out of their sockets and the heavily wrinkled skin to turn smooth and pink and waxen. It turned the haunted expression of the Unsafe-At-Any-Speed Scold into the smug and fleshy visage of “Paul Krugman.” All in all, it was as if someone had painted over the veteran litigator’s face in broad, thick brushstrokes, turning an El Greco portrait into a leering and sneering Rubens.
At first, Nader delighted in his ability to pass off his opinions, and himself, as the young and increasingly well-known “Paul Krugman.” But as sometimes happens — think Dr. Frankenstein and his monster! — the creator began to tire of his creation and the newly forged creature began to take on a life of his own. Nader disliked the love of luxury that he saw in his alter ego — the taste for bespoke suits, fine wines and the like, and the desire to cozy up to the super-rich and super-famous (like Enron’s Ken Lay). More surprisingly still, the two began to have minor disagreements over policy issues.
You might think that one knee-jerk liberal is pretty much the same as the next, and not much different than your average dyed-in-the-wool socialist. But there are subtle differences.
Born in 1903 — the same year that the Wright brothers flew for the first time — Nader is more of the socialist. He has fond and vivid memories of almost everything that happened in the Great Depression. Truth be told, the Great Depression was a grand time from a Naderite perspective. He rejoiced in the equal sharing of miseries. He liked the purgative effect on so many lives of a sudden and irretrievable loss of personal wealth and comfort. Now they could live as he himself chose to live — as hermits and holy men.
Of course, his alter ego — and the face that everyone sees on each of his columns — has other ideas. Without any direct experience of his own, he (“Krugman”) foolishly insists on the idea that FDR could have “spent his way out” of the Great Depression — by ratcheting up spending to the levels that would later be reached during the height of World War II. He has used that argument in urging the current administration to plunge even deeper into debt and incipient bankruptcy than it has done so far in two disastrous years in office.
Though he can plainly see that “Paul Krugman” has become a serious nut case, Nader finds that he is powerless to stop the flow of Krugmanesque nonsense from coming out every time he sits down to write another column. And so he decided to take action — going to Bill Keller and insisting that he go public with the whole story.
Keller is prepared to do so, but other higher-ups at the New York Times are in a state of revolt. If someone’s head has to roll, they are saying, it ought to be Nader’s, not Krugman’s. Their argument is that Nader — who turned 107 last week — has “lost touch with his inner Krugman.” They say there are at least five or six other people at the newspaper who can continue to churn out “Paul Krugman” columns that will be as good as or better than any Ralph Nader has written.
As this article goes to press, the outcome is undetermined. But one thing is certain: You will never see Ralph Nader and “Paul Krugman” in the same room. And if there is any moral to this tale, it is this: When you sup with The Gray Lady, make sure you have a long spoon.